Tuesday, August 31, 2004


From a speech given by Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, at the Republican National Convention last night, as quoted by The New York Times online:

On Sept. 11, this city and our nation faced the worst attack in our history ... I looked up and seeing the flames of hell emanating from those buildings and realizing that what I was actually seeing was a human being on the 101st, 102nd floor that was jumping out of the building, I stood there; it probably took five or six seconds. It seemed to me that it took 20 or 30 minutes. And I was stunned. And I realized in that moment and that instant, I realized we were facing something that we had never, ever faced before. . . .

Without really thinking, based on just emotion, spontaneous, I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and I said to him, “Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.”

Monday, August 30, 2004


Two boys, well-scrubbed types who looked to be in the early years of high school, walked one after the other toward the exits of the Broadway T stop. Brothers, but not twins, perhaps a year or two apart. Freckled faces, tanned legs in shorts, dirty blond hair under Red Sox baseball caps. Their chests, too, were identical: Each wore an Old Navy T-shirt, blazing white with a rustic American flag etched into the center.

Patriotism’s the last refuge of a scoundrel, sure, but these two all-American cherubs weren’t scoundrels. Most wearers of the flag are not; there is simply something about Americans that drives them to it. The colors that most countries paint on themselves during World Cup finals are the standard uniform in the United States, which coincidentally tends to look down its collective nose at that periodic frenzy of mock war. (Why shouldn’t it? America stays busy with those sports invented here, baseball and basketball, and the one whose name was appropriated, football. Paying attention to soccer is merely confusing when the entire rest of the world insists on calling it a different name.)

Jenna Weissman Joselit’s “A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America” (Owl, 2001) is silent on this quirk, because the book stretches from the 1890s to the 1930s, but the silence is eloquent: It underlines that the national obsession with red, white and blue is new, although the roots of this flag drag are old. Joselit notes that a fabric buyer writing in a 1920s Saturday Evening Post ...

[S]ingled out the “East European element of our population” for its bravery and fashion forwardness. With their “racial love” of colors, “these people” deserved to be credited with having whetted the nation’s thirst for color, he declared, offering a strikingly essentialist perspective on the relationship between race and the hues of the rainbow. His theory went something like this: When they first arrived in the New World, Jewish immigrants dressed like everyone else. Eager to be “like Americans who had been here for generations,” they practiced restraint even though they found the “conventional blacks, grays and other dark shades of our male attire inherited from the Puritans dull and uninteresting.” But no sooner did they become sure of themselves as Americans then they “reverted to their untrammeled love of colors.” ... Right or wrong, the fabric buyer’s theory of history underscored one of color’s most important properties: its relationship to freedom.

The wearing of red, white and blue exploded after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a persistence-of-vision effect like Fourth of July fireworks or something seen through eyes shut very tightly. The illumination by flag displays not only unity against an enemy, but a brandishing of brightness against the oppressive blackness and austerity of the robes, and edicts, of our enemies. The fervored nationalism carries a sweaty sheen of defensiveness to which America is blind, just as the Taliban, Wahhabists and Islamists are blind to their own surrender into blackness. The difference, if any, lies not in the wearing, but in the creation, meaning the manufacture and selling of red, white and blue this, that and the other thing. Marketing patriotism is taking advantage of an addiction, which is certainly the behavior of a scoundrel.

America’s flaunting of its colors is probably unique on Earth, at least at this time, and it comes of being stuck in a loop of sensory overload; in politics as in fashion, the first dose is free, but no one warns that the stuff is addictive, and once the flaunting has begun, there can only be more patriotism and more. Less patriotism is, in practice, unpatriotic. And no one wants to be that, especially if they’re not -- especially if the problem is easily and even subconsciously solved by simply buying a T-shirt. Or pants. Or a headband. Or a beach towel. Or anything else with the right colors and maybe a bunch of stars.

Keep an eye out for bargains at your local grocery store for Edy’s America’s Vanilla ice cream, which is intended to stop selling tomorrow. This is the red, white and blue treat that suggests you “Show your true colors! Then enjoy eating them!”

This Limited Edition flavor is your favorite creamy vanilla ice cream striped in red, white and blue. So salute the great taste of America’s Vanilla. A perfect new reason to celebrate America!

Never mind that red, white and blue are also the colors of a little less than three dozen other flags on Earth, including such nations as Cuba and North Korea as well as friendlies including the Czech Republic, Australia, Laos, the Netherlands, Tokelau and the territories of Wallis and Futuna. (So Edy’s can theoretically go on to sell “A perfect new reason to celebrate America!” as “A perfect new reason to celebrate France!” and Slovenia! and Liberia!)

What’s funniest, and saddest, about this ice cream is that under the gaudiness -- Red No. 40 and Blue Nos. 1 and 2 -- it’s just vanilla. Underneath the spectacle is the dullest of flavors.

America, however, just eats this stuff up.

Friday, August 27, 2004


There’s no better service I could provide my many, many, many readers than to point them to Waterbones today, where they’ll find a typically well-written piece about our bullying, blustering pursuit of a missile shield. It has that level of sputtering outraged disbelief I try to achieve so frequently on this page.

Well, I don’t try very hard to achieve it. It just comes to me.

Years ago I stumbled across an article, citing Congressional testimony from a high-ranking and knowledgeable member of the military, showing that our missile shield tests were rigged -- that the targets held beacons that drew missiles toward them. I lost the article and could not find it again, no matter how hard I looked, as reports flew about new, supposedly successful tests supposedly adding to previous supposedly successful tests. It was very frustrating.

Waterbones has found a Salon article, though, that shows that the shenanigans continue. While the White House boasts that the shield will be in place this year, even the most recent missile tests are -- there’s no getting around it -- faked.

It’s a delicious encapsulation of the Bush administration in general, in terms of misplaced priorities and disturbingly unflinching deception. But it’s difficult to savor the perfection when there’s so much at stake.

Thursday, August 26, 2004


Depending on where you look, with whom you talk or what bumper stickers are on your car, the attacks on presidential candidate John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are: moving polls in President Bush’s direction; hurting the Bush campaign by offending voters; being milked by the Kerry campaign to generate sympathy; other; or some combination thereof, and on into meaninglessness.

Now that Bush is saying Kerry is, in fact, a war hero, does it mean the attack ads have served their purpose? Or that Bush is retreating before he does any further damage to himself?

Whatever. What’s stunning is that roughly half the country is ready to vote for this sleazebag, our president, who even supporters must acknowledge sat out Vietnam, can’t prove he fulfilled even his cushy stateside responsibilities and has -- at the very least -- failed for months to criticize attacks on Kerry’s war record that he now agrees are unfair. So we’re trotted through vomitous episodes of national debate over such things as whether Kerry was in Cambodia during Christmas or just afterward and whether he threw out all or some of either his or someone else’s medals or ribbon.

All the talk about a divided nation, the red and blue states, retro vs. metro, finally sinks home on the Swift Boat issue. I’ve never felt such a disconnect as I do with my fellow Americans -- supposedly the moral ones, the ones opposed to Hollywood liberals and gay marriage and dope (like the president’s cocaine?) and lies and philandering and such, but those willing to vote for this smirking, cowardly sleazebag. Our president.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Did everyone catch the latest Republican line of the day? From today’s New York Times:

“I was more than happy to help all Republican groups comply with the law so that there wasn’t unilateral disarmament.” -- Benjamin L. Ginsberg, lawyer for the Bush administration and Swift Boat Veterans for truth, which are not linked in any way. From “Veterans’ Group Had G.O.P. Lawyer,” Page A1.

“We don’t disagree with the president’s take, but we can’t unilaterally disarm. There is extensive activity by the liberals, and we still need to counter them and level the playing field.” -- Brian McCabe, president of the Progress for America Voter Fund, a group incensed by Democrats doing what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are doing and therefore vowing to do what the Democrats are doing. From “G.O.P. Group Says It’s Ready to Wage Ad War,” Page A17.



Tuesday, August 24, 2004


First there’s the turnaround of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts on the matter of U.S. intelligence agencies -- he’s now recommending changes even beyond that of the 9/11 commission. Then there’s the brutally sleazy effort against presidential candidate John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Doing Absolutely Anything to Keep John Kerry From Being President.

Add these things together and, well, I keep coming back to the same thought: How could the Democrats have allowed that odious deal over the Senate Intelligence Committee report? You know, the one where the Bush administration gets until after the election to face any heat on abusing intelligence and pulling the con job that got us mired in Iraq?

I must have missed it: What the hell were the Democrats thinking? Wouldn’t that second report be an important thing for voters to see before possibly giving George Bush a second term?

Monday, August 23, 2004


I’ve been watching the Coen brother’s “The Big Lebowski” a lot lately, wondering how much is going on under its easy, loping eccentricity, what it’s really about.

One thing the movie is certainly not is a comment on 9/11.

That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? The story is set during the Gulf War but involves mistaken identity, bowling and the fake kidnapping of, in the parlance of our times, a young trophy wife. There is no terrorism in it. If you read the wonkish message boards following the film, though, suspicion about a 9/11 connection pops up frequently.

It is true that at the start of the story, as the first President Bush is insisting that Iraqi aggression in Kuwait “will not stand,” the hero, the Dude, is writing a check for the half-and-half he needs to make his favorite cocktail. The date on the check is Sept. 11, 1991, or exactly 10 years before the terrorist attacks that brought down New York’s World Trade Center towers -- proving, incidentally, that after being hit with airplanes, they couldn’t stand, either.

With Lebowskifests growing in popularity and the film settling comfortably into epic cult status, this ominous date is sure to infest “Lebowski” conversations to the detriment of truly valuable analysis. (On the assumption there is anything truly valuable to say about a movie that sold itself with the tagline, “They figured he was a lazy, time-wasting slacker. They were right.”)

So let it be clear: The Dude is not only poor, but cheap. The check he writes -- for 69 cents -- is dated ahead several days, to ensure Ralph’s won’t take the 69 cents out of his checking account before he can afford it. At least three days pass between him writing the check and being told by his landlord that “Dude, uh, tomorrow is already the tenth.” So the Dude, who may significantly be writing a check he can’t cash, is clearly not making a statement about 9/11. He may be making a statement about 9/6.

Possibly by design, the chronology of “The Big Lebowski” makes no sense if matched to an actual calendar for September 1991. The ninth was a Monday, but the scene with the landlord on that day comes right after a night of bowling, which comes right after the big Lebowski berates the Dude for wearing a bathrobe “in the middle of a weekday.” By the time the Dude’s friend is complaining about being forced to drive on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, the chronology can arguably again be correct, since the 14th was a Saturday. But the landlord’s dance quintet, which was supposed to take place on a Tuesday, has already happened. As far as clues on a timeline gleaned from the movie, since the Coens’ script doesn’t offer many of its own, about three days have passed, and that’s either too many or too few.

In further refutation of a 9/11 link, there is also the fact that the movie was released in 1998. That makes it unlikely that the Coen brothers were making any statements about events in September 2001, to say the least.

The final point against the theory, as sharper contributors to the message boards inevitably point out, is that 9/11 and Iraq, especially the Gulf War, have nothing to do with each other. But while that may be an accurate observation about the movie, it shows little insight into the minds of conspiracy-minded Americans. That our president is one of those, not to mention a walking, talking conspiracy on his own, is one of the few points in favor of the theory at all.

Friday, August 20, 2004


Why does the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority have schedules? I notice on my “Axonometric Projections of Harvard Square, Central Cambridge, Central Square, Cambridge Center & M.I.T. Areas” map -- if it isn’t redundant to say “map” after saying “axonometric projections” -- that someone has humorously given creator Tom Kane frequencies for buses and the T.

If you take the red line toward either Ashmont or Braintree, it says, you can expect a T to come along every eight minutes during rush hour, every 12 minutes during other weekday times, every 13 minutes on Saturday and every 15 minutes on Sunday.

Very interesting, and completely meaningless. The T can come much more frequently during any time of the day, or two can come almost immediately, or three, and then others can lurk elsewhere for 20 or 25 minutes at a time. Every once in a while the drivers announce, no doubt holding back chuckles, that they must keep a train frozen on the tracks for a couple of minutes for “a schedule adjustment.” Schedule? If the T is on a schedule, why isn’t the schedule posted? Why aren’t even these map figures posted somewhere? Why must one spend $4.95 at the travel bookstore in Harvard Square to discover them?

Bus times are posted, but it’s a mystery why, as the MBTA can’t keep to them. Bus consistency is about equal to T consistency, but the disappointment is more acute because there is a schedule, painstakingly broken down by minute of arrival and departure at stops along a route -- passengers can consult it, MBTA officials create it, and it bears little relation to reality.

The map is dated 1998, so the frequencies given for the T’s red line may have been abandoned. If so, the bus schedules should be abandoned, too, perhaps in favor of a T-style frequency chart, perhaps in favor of big signs saying merely that “A bus is coming.” The advantage is that, instead of breaking promises dozens of times a day, the phrase promises very little; a bus is coming, even if you’ve missed the last one for the day and you must wait six or so hours for the next day’s first bus to arrive.

Finally, I must mention how disconcerting it is to have lived here for so many years and still be put off and confused by the map referring to “Central Cambridge, Central Square and Cambridge Center” as three different things.

Thursday, August 19, 2004


Let’s delve into selfish, tedious minutiae, shall we?

I burned the hell out of my hand today at the Au Bon Pain in Tufts-New England Medical Center. Foreshadowing for this years came ago, when, knowing the site was open around the clock, I went there for dinner while working a late shift at the Boston Herald. The door I usually go in was locked, and to get in I had to (through an intercom) ask, beg, debate and finally heap scorn upon a security guard controlling access to the building.

What I should have done is take the long walk around the building and to the emergency room entrance, which is what I’ve done since for late-night visits. That door’s open all the time. I wonder if the security guard knows.

Regardless, the clam chowder burn I suffered on my left hand came of holding a weak cardboard bowl while scooping -- awkward. The bowl warped, wilted and the blistering-hot soup glopped onto me, then the counter.

This is how it’s done now. This Au Bon Pain did away with its trays, you see.

When they disappeared a few months ago, I didn’t catch on immediately. Chalking it up to the chain’s usual poor sense of organization, I spent a while walking around looking for them before finally asking a manager, who explained that so many trays had disappeared from the restaurant that it finally made sense just to cut them out of the budget.

To save me incendiary agony they could have:

... offered an intermittent reward for people bringing back a tray, such as 10 percent off a meal. This would have worked as coupons do, making more money for the company while making customers think they’re getting away with something (other than something to put under their office’s potted plant);

... inundated the restaurant, and therefore the hospital, with so many of these cheap plastic trays that their value -- even as something to lazily steal each lunchtime -- drops into minus territory. With translucent plastic trays multiplying like the creatures in the later reels of “Gremlins,” chances are good that people would be begging Au Bon Pain to take them back.

But these things did not happen. And now I will be suing Au Bon Pain for millions of dollars. Although there are no visible burns on my hand, and it is fully functional, I am clearly suffering. My readers may also want to sue, for their second-hand pain and suffering.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


The U.S. government is squeamish about letting us see our Iraq war fatalities, and the media has played along. A Minneapolis alternative paper gives us a latest example here.

There are ways to give a sense of the nation’s loss -- if not the loss of soldiers’ loved ones -- that do not offend either government or the media, though, and Brian has sent along a link that demonstrates this with devastating effectiveness.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004


It’s true. I’m an idiot.

Sent some pretty-looking plans by a trusted source, I recklessly posted the news that there was action on Lafayette Square in Cambridge, only to be shown up by an anonymous comment noting that the plans were from 1999.

Well, yes.

But in fact there is progress, however small, on the plan to revamp the blighted area, named in honor of a French nobleman who probably thought he’d get a little more than a shuttered gas station as an emblem for risking his life in the the colonies’ Revolutionary War. There will be work on the project within a month or two, according to officials at the city’s Department of Public Works and the Massachusetts Highway Department.

A Billerica company has been awarded a contract for work on the site, Highway says, and after some paperwork is pushed through, will get right to work “putting signs up” and such. Hey, every project starts somewhere.

“There will probably be no major work until the spring,” said Public Works employee William Deignan. “It could be a couple of years before the park is constructed.”

One thing that looks very likely: “They’ll probably look to take down the gas station fairly early to use it as a staging area for construction,” Deignan said.

Ah, Lafayette. You’re even losing your run-down shack.

Monday, August 16, 2004


I fear the president’s opinions on income taxes aren’t getting the publicity they should. From The Associated Press:

Bush criticized Kerry’s plan to eliminate the tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year, saying that the “the rich in America happen to be the small business owners” who put people to work.

Bush also said high taxes on the rich are a failed strategy because “the really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway.”

As baleful a look as I cast toward the White House over this, the real disappointment is the media, whose response to this has been stunningly apathetic. This is not a dime-a-dozen Bushism worth a roll of the eyes, but a policy statement made publicly to voters. The reporter spoke to a Kerry campaign spokesman in Virginia, who sniped appropriately that “George Bush can speak with authority about really rich people. ... That’s his base, so I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about. But that doesn’t make it right.”

It’s also not right that the Bush campaign or the White House hasn’t been asked about this. The reticence is hard to understand.

By the way, I missed this Bush quote from Aug. 9 until alerted to look at the blog “How did I get in this handbasket?” The site has some brilliant posts, and it’s easy to read them all, because it’s brand-new. My only complaint with the site stems from my millennial pet peeve: The use of the popular “Sesame Street” color alerts refers to “terror” instead of “terrorism.”

Friday, August 13, 2004


Weary disappointment kept me from noting that the retail space at Massachusetts Avenue and Creighton Street in Porter Square will become a Big Picture Framing shop. Distant sadness kept me from reporting that the square’s Sasuga Japanese Bookstore has become a Century 21 real estate office. And a reeling sense of injustice has kept me from crying out over its Unicorn Books & Spiritual Resource Center, which once was the Bookcellar Cafe, then empty for more than two years (save for annual visits from an art cooperative at holiday time).

But replacing the Dress Barn in the Star Market shopping plaza is -- and I’m so excited I can barely get the words out -- Porter Square Books, with owners as close to rock stars as one can get in small book circles. The three managers of the Concord Bookshop, as well as former employees, have taken the 4,480 square feet of dowdy dresses and vowed to open it Oct. 1 with books, newspapers and cafe fare.

“Because of the area, we have to stay open until at least 9 p.m. every day, maybe later,” said managing director Dale Szczeblowski, also vice president of the New England Booksellers Association, to Bookselling This Week.

Unreservedly good news.

My friend Carl has also issued an alert that plans are posted for Lafayette Square, where Massachusetts Avenue meets Main Street toward the eastern edge of Central Square. This is something of a step forward for the area, the key feature of which has been a boarded-up Shell gas station, even though the move is perceived by many to be merely an effort to create a pleasant barrier between Massachusetts Institute of Technology land and the low-income Area 4. This is where eight activists were arrested in April for cleaning, according to the arrested activists, or possession of burglary tools and breaking into the station for “storage of materials,” according to city manager Robert Healey.

It’s easy to understand why local activists would clean the place up, considering that the city seized it by eminent domain a decade ago and let it lapse into eyesorehood as it crawled toward its $5.7 million park plan. It’s less easy to understand why eight people were arrested on felony charges for breaking into an empty building on an abandoned lot, even for “storage of materials” that included, Healey said, “crowbars and drills.”

Thursday, August 12, 2004


I still mourn the loss of the Chau Chow, the grungy Chinatown restaurant that bestowed the blessing of spicy dried fried salted squid and stayed open until near-dawn with modesty, diverse clientele and winking offerings of “cold tea.” (It was beer.) This is not just maudlin nostalgia, but recognition that the remaining restaurants in the Chau Chow family are poor replacements in fancy clothes.

The Grand Chau Chow was across the street from the plain ol’ Chau Chow, gussied up with mirrors, potted plants and flashy paneling, but it was always a fallback. Going there was distasteful, somehow, and made waiting a half-hour for a table at the scummy place an acceptable alternative. Now the Chau Chow is gone, making the Grand Chau Chow still a second choice to Chau Chow City -- and strangely far less grand, since Chau Chow City is three stories of thick and relentless faux Asian glitz created by actual Asians, the intimidating Luu family.

But, forced to eat at the Grand Chau Chow, one is relieved to find ... no, that sentence came out wrong. Let’s try it again.

Forced to eat at the Grand Chau Chow, one is appalled to find that the experience is worse than feared, with outright hostile waiters, dismissive management, suspicious-looking food and crowding reminiscent of Chico and Harpo’s guerilla maitre’ding in “A Night in Casablanca.” The vegetables in oyster sauce ordered by my girlfriend, Martina, could best be described as “a lot of one vegetable with a bit of oyster sauce and something that looks suspiciously like gristle.” (The waiters and management have a different take on it. To them the dish is more like “this is the vegetable you wanted even though we don’t name it and you don’t know what it is, with exactly the right amount of oyster sauce because any more would overwhelm your palate, and a stray bit of, um, that’s, uh, ginger.” But you can order by number if you can’t remember all that.)

Waiters took the dish back very reluctantly, rejecting the notion it was not fairly described on the menu and not exactly what Martina wanted. They also claimed they would take a loss on the dish, although the vegetable must have cost them all of 80 cents, with another couple of cents for the squiggle of sauce. They all but claimed their children would starve, although the Luus own not just several restaurants, including the thriving Chinatown Chau Chows, but a food importing business and supermarket chain.

Perhaps sensing that their tip had plunged to zero, we got no more tea or water for the rest of the meal. We actually left a dollar, reflecting that they’d taken the dish back and removed it from the bill. Our new waiter rejected my explanation of the poor tip with brusque, wounded energy. Let’s move on, he seemed to say.

The manager shared that healthy let’s-move-on attitude, except that his version was the steroidal bodybuilder version of mental health, with the red skin and bulging veins and chest that swallows up one’s neck and head. “We don’t care,” he said when I tried to speak to him about the low tip, knowing waiters more or less live on them. “The waiters and the restaurant are separate.”

(This makes one wonder why the waiter would balk at all at taking the dish back. If the two are separate, waiters have every incentive to screw the restaurant to increase the size of their tips.)

It’s hardly the kind of attitude, or experience, that makes diners eager to return. But the Luus, and Grand Chau Chow itself, have no reason to worry or change. The place is thronged, packed with diners ready to be abused, and a boycott would be silly, as the restaurant’s surliness and arrogance is built on the adoration of the masses.

Let the masses have it. I suspect we won’t be rushing back.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Some good points, several good sources and a good way for me to officially post to the blog and avoid real effort can be found in this analysis of the Patriot Act. The legislation, which takes double-barreled aim at terrorism and democracy, seems to have dropped off the agenda of political debate -- which is odd, considering how close we are to a presidential election.

Republicans don’t like bringing it up because people hate the law. Democrats don’t like bringing it up, I think, because they’re embarrassed by voting for it, especially since it turns out, as U.S. Rep. John Conyers told Michael Moore (and many of us) in “Fahrenheit 9/11”: “Sit down, my son ... we don’t read most of the bills.” To the Democrats, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, as did the music of Linkin Park.

And now it’s time for a classic Agonizing Reappraisal.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


I’d intended to make fun of the United States’ constant claims of capturing “key leaders” of Al Qaeda, since our intelligence industry seemed unable to fathom that the terrorists could keep appointing new key leaders as long as we could keep capturing the old ones. Especially since critics of the Iraq war have been warning since before our invasion that it would serve as a giant Al Qaeda recruiting tool. Especially since we keep being told that we’re about to be attacked by Al Qaeda, hardly the sign of a devastated terrorist organization.

Then the New York Times goes ahead and slaps “New Generation of Leaders Is Emerging for Al Qaeda” on its front page, beating me to the punch but making it look almost as stupid as our intelligence industry.

“A new generation of operatives ... appear to be filling the vacuum created when leaders were killed or captured,” the Times tells us, quoting “senior intelligence officials.”

Intelligence analysts say they are finding that Al Qaeda’s upper ranks are being filled by lower-ranking members and more recent recruits ... While the findings may result in a significant intelligence coup for the Bush administration and its allies in Britain, they also create a far more complex picture of Al Qaeda’s status than Mr. Bush presents on the campaign trail. For the past several months, the president has claimed that much of Al Qaeda’s leadership has been killed or captured; the new evidence suggests that the organization is regenerating and bringing in new blood.

Intelligence coup?

What’s so bizarre about this revelation by our senior intelligence officials is the implication that we expected to render Al Qaeda harmless, unmotivated and confused, by capturing a few guys at the top, although we still haven’t even gotten our hands on Osama bin Laden, who has been credited with micromanaging the 9/11 attacks and funding the entire terrorist organization, or even the organization’s No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri. If the 100 top U.S. spooks were captured, our intelligence agencies wouldn’t shut down -- if this is another indication of their ability, in fact, the FBI might actually improve -- and this “coup” is like expressing shock that the FBI can keep operating even though Robert Mueller and his human resources department weren’t among the missing.

One begins to wonder from what universe the Times is reporting, or at least whether its leaders haven’t been captured in another way, held hostage by good sources and wince-inducing attempts at objectivity that look a lot like willful ignorance. The real story is how the Bush administration gets away with its claims to be winning a war on terrorism, a crime in which the Times is complicit. This is not an intelligence coup; this is a complete lack of common sense disguised as high-level analysis.

Monday, August 09, 2004


It was hardly worth noticing. A bottle of vanilla extract, fallen and lost at a bus stop across from the Mount Auburn Star Market. Spotted and forgotten on the way to sightseeing in, and from, Mount Auburn Cemetery.

But on the way back, walking on the Star Market side of the street this time, several steps past the bus stop it registers: Another small, brown bottle, face down under the bench. Turned over, it’s revealed to be another bottle of vanilla extract, and the the mind reels at the oddness.

But the mystery was short-lived. The initial suspicion, that vanilla extract is a source of alcohol, turns out to be correct. On the way to confirming this, I find that alcoholics “try to hide their alcoholic breath by sipping Listerine, Scope or vanilla extract,” according to one Alcoholics Anonymous branch, but from another that “When a farmer in Aroostook County, Maine, announces that he is going to bake a cake, he is speaking figuratively.”

It goes on:

What he means is that he is bored with the loneliness of Aroostook’s vast reaches, with the county’s most famous product, potatoes & with life in general; & that, to relieve his boredom, he is going on a vanilla-extract bender. In order to buy liquor he might have to drive as much as a hundred miles over drifted or rutted roads, to reach a town uninhibited by local option. He tipples on vanilla, which is rich in alcohol, because it is easily & legally obtainable, in quantity, at the nearest grocery store.

Along the well-traveled length of Mount Auburn Street, it’s as likely that vanilla is the drink of choice among teen trainees as it is for hardened, or softened, boozers. But as a substitute for the real stuff it shows the typical, can-do ingenuity of the alcoholic, which tends to twist the gut of those who are not yet there. Drink enough water and you’ll get drunk, although you run the risk of lapsing into a coma first; longtime Massachusetts residents, or at least people paying attention during the 1988 presidential campaign, will remember that Kitty Dukakis slugged down rubbing alcohol; and then there’s mouthwash, which, like vanilla extract, serves double duty as cover-up and what needs covering up.

To consider how low one can sink, consider the scene in humid Downtown Crossing two or three winters ago, a brutal season when the homeless bunked regularly at the T stop’s far end when the red line entrance shut down. MBTA police would go through every once in a while and roust the sleeping men, usually with bemused gentleness. The bums, predictably, didn’t want to go, since it meant exposure to bitter cold, so sometimes the police had to be insistent. They cajoled, they carried them out.

In this case, a police officer had taken an old bum’s Listerine and was walking slowly backward with it, keeping it just out of reach, to lure the guy out. The homeless man was shambling after it, shuffling, half-blind, hands reaching for the bottle of mouthwash that would be his again only when he was back in the freezing cold. With the warmth of the T stop forbidden him, he’d need it.

Friday, August 06, 2004


The LaRouche kids are out in force in Harvard Square today, a colorful contrast to its evolution into a dull canvas of commerce and services. Who would have guessed that a giant Citizens Bank branch would make one miss the giant Abercrombie & Fitch it’s replacing?

The youth were singing, as usual, handing out their usual literature (“Children of Satan III,” a title that would seem more at home on a double bill with “Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering”) and talking their usual nonsense.

I made it a point to ask for a copy of “Children of Satan III,” hoping it wouldn’t waste a lot of time on exposition, as sequels often do, but sure it was worth it for the subtitle alone: “The Sexual Congress For Cultural Fascism.” It’s unclear if the italicization of “Sexual” is pure luridness or intended to allow readers to discriminate this publication from one warning about the metallurgist congress for cultural fascism.

It is also unclear who would pay the $5 “Suggested Contribution” for this publication, which is put out by the LaRouche in 2004 campaign — presumably a presidential campaign, but possibly just a statement of being. The text inside, some of which is credited to Lyndon LaRouche, some to no one, is bewildering from the start:

How “The Sexual Congress of Cultural Fascism” Ruined the U.S.A. And Gave Us “Beast-Man” Cheney.

During the 1964-81 interval, from the launching of the U.S. official war in Indo-China, through the inauguration of Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve System, the United States of America was transformed into the world’s leading producer society, into what became the presently, terminally bankrupt “post-industrial” wreckage, which had been bestowed upon the currently crumbling Administration of Vice President Dick Cheney’s puppet, George W. Bush, Jr.

The jump-cut barrage of ideas without context suggests William S. Burroughs, but the ideas on their own suggest at least a week of psychological observation.

The LaRouche weirdo with whom I spoke also bore a whiff of the padded room, as so many true believers do. Being able to talk knowledgeably about LaRouche’s gibberish, or even to explain what “The Sexual Congress of Cultural Fascism” means, obviously requires a lot of commitment and even concentration: It’s learning an entire belief system written in the semantic equivalent of the maniac’s pinched scrawl. And whatever the timing seems to be, it’s not politics alone at play here. The weirdo tried to force an explanation of “Children of Satan III” on me that damned the baby boomers for trading truth and beauty for the “arbitrary” values of the 1960s, what LaRouche’s text refers to as “the characteristically inhuman, madly rutting ‘rock-drug-sex youth counterculture.’”

Many political campaigns have an element of cultural reform to them, and criticism of hippies isn’t limited to this one. What’s oddly terrifying is that it’s not some general expression of ideals, a plank in a platform, but 48 pages of dense, monomaniacal prose digging deep into history to blame our nation’s decline on everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Egyptian midwives and (of course) the Freemasons. It finds time to blast the failure of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. So much for the worry about too much exposition.

The pamphlet ends with a look into a completely different conspiracy theory — although I guess by nature they’re all related -- and a defense of LaRouche against “slanders” printed by media such as The Washington Post, and its last sentence outs a LaRouche Youth Movement member who switched sides by pointing out that “he left behind a large collection of pornography, which he had downloaded from the Internet.”

This is all obviously insane, and I was not going to get lured into a conversation with the LaRouche kid. I left after making sure she knew I wanted a copy of “Children of Satan III” only because it was funny.

I also pointed out that truth and beauty are subjective. She should know that about truth already.

Thursday, August 05, 2004


By “original,” I’m not actually claiming to have had an original thought. I just mean that it launches a topic, rather than expanding on one. The so-called original thought occurred to me on the way to work today, when I stepped out into the road to wait for traffic to die down before crossing the street. A car stopped for me.

This has been happening a lot lately. Sometimes, even when I purposefully stand facing away from traffic -- signaling my unreadiness to and disinterest in crossing -- a car will stop and wait for me to walk to the opposite sidewalk, although its driver could have gone all the way to the stop sign in front of it, even through the green light overhead.

It’s unlikely that I’m causing nervousness, and thus stopping traffic, by being in the road. Boston and Cambridge traffic can flow on when there’s enough people in the street to qualify for a civil rights march. It’s also unlikely drivers just want to see me cross in front of them. My stomach is bigger than my chest, my ass is undistinguished and I haven’t worn a miniskirt in years. (Thirty-five years, in fact.)

So what’s going on here? It’s odd behavior coming from the same drivers who’ll risk high-speed death to prevent a driver using his directionals from getting in front of them.


Tuesday’s post on how drug makers deal with our captive market was not intended to be the final word on the matter. It certainly wasn’t, as one reader pointed out. I was merely trying to take one bite-sized chunk of the issue, chew on it a bit, spit it out and see what it looked like.


Sorry for that metaphor.


The part of Monday’s post dealing with Christopher Hitchens could also stand some qualification. His piece on Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was not completely without merit, mainly in the section in which he points out that Saddam Hussein was not such a nice guy, and that Moore’s film could have played that up to provide some context for our decision to attack.

But Moore is less obliged to do so because the Bush administration relied mainly on other arguments to justify its war. Hussein had been a bastard all along, making that apparently not a strong enough base from which to launch a war, so instead we got claims of stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, nuclear capabilities within months of readiness, assertions of Al Qaeda support and intimations of complicity in 9/11.

In an argument, it’s nice if the other side makes your point for you, but it’s not required. All that can reasonably be expected is that the other side will respond to your points. The other side is also allowed to bring up points of their own, to which you can respond. That’s how it works.

But Hitchens doesn’t know how to argue fairly any more than President Bush knows how to legitimize a war. Neither can bring themselves to tackle an issue on its merits. They smear and spin instead.

Monday’s point was that it’s unfair for Hitchens to insist Moore can’t criticize the specifics of a policy he doesn’t support in general. Hitchens also:

... says Moore’s movie is incoherent, when actually all it’s doing is reflecting the contradictions of politics, which makes records of what is said and done unreliable from day to day or room to room. Hitchens complains that “Either the Saudis run U.S. policy (through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not. As allies and patrons of the Taliban regime, they either opposed Bush’s removal of it, or they did not.” President Bush could be accused of incoherence, too, since he, for instance, opposed the creation of a 9/11 panel, then claimed it as an accomplishment, then said he was adopting its conclusions, even though the adoption is taking place in a way opposite of what’s prescribed. That’s politics, baby.

... acts as though he’s skewering Moore when all he’s doing is bringing up irrelevancies. For example: chiding Moore for pointing out that Afghanistan, part of the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq, could contribute only our own soldiers rather than Afghan soldiers, “we discover that there is an emerging Afghan army, that the country is now a joint NATO responsibility and thus under the protection of the broadest military alliance in history, that it has a new constitution and is preparing against hellish odds to hold a general election, and that at least a million and a half of its former refugees have opted to return.” These are not facts “deliberately left out,” as Hitchens says, but facts that have nothing to do with what Moore is talking about.

... and pretends there are definitive answers to what Moore sees as mysteries. He notes that on the flights that took Saudis out of the United States when no one else could fly, Richard Clarke, once the Bush administration’s counterterrorism chief, took the blame -- “another bust for this windy and bloated cinematic ‘key to all mythologies’ ... a film that bases itself on a big lie and a big misrepresentation.” (Who said it was the “key to all mythologies” is a mystery on its own, and Hitchens description of the film is ridiculously unfair. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is hardly based on any one or two discrete points. Indeed, Hitchens himself says it uses “discrepant scatter shots [that] do not cohere.”) But Hitchens fails to acknowledge that the story he links to as proof shows Clarke’s admission contradicts Clarke’s own testimony and says that “Instead of putting the issue to rest, Clarke’s testimony fueled speculation among Democrats that someone higher up in the administration, perhaps White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, approved the flights.”

Noting contradictions, Moore is “incoherent.” Making a contradiction, Clarke provides a killing blow. Is that how it works?

Regardless, it’s not that Hitchens has nothing valuable to say. It’s just that it’s all but lost in rant and rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004


“We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.” -- Tom Ridge, Homeland Security secretary, Aug. 3, 2004, defending charges that politics plays a role in terrorism alerts

“We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror.” -- Ridge, Aug. 1, 2004, announcing a terrorism alert

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


The United States is essentially a captive market for drug makers, which sell drugs at dramatically lower costs everywhere else and rely on profits here to make up the difference. We pay the industry’s research and development costs, and a change, drug makers say, would end innovation.

So it worries the industry that there’s a growing trend toward importing drugs from other nations, with support from many politicians, and price negotiation at least for people on Medicare, which is a John Kerry presidential campaign promise.

Bear with me for a moment to look at another captive market: airports, and Logan International Airport in particular.

Airports are isolated from other commerce and full of people who must be there, sometimes for many hours, making it easy to charge exorbitant costs for basic foods. It could have gotten worse after 9/11, when travelers were obliged to arrive for flights earlier to deal with higher security, and when food, especially free food, began disappearing from many flights.

Overcharging creates resentment, though. Inevitably, airport food sellers could face a drop in sales as travelers brought food from outside -- the same problem faced by movie snack bars -- or even shoplifted, considering it fair retaliation against price gouging.

“Years ago, airports used to gouge people, they used to charge outrageous prices, like $5 for a hot dog,” agreed Massport concession manager Leah Teeven. But Logan long ago took steps to counter this with a “street pricing policy,” meaning “For all of our concessions, we require that prices be within the average of stores found outside the airport.”

Here’s how it works: Once a year, every item sold in Logan is surveyed and checked against prices at stores in Boston and Cambridge. If the seller is a chain, such as Au Bon Pain, prices are determined by looking at other Au Bon Pains. At stand-alone stores, prices must be derived from similar stores selling similar products; if sellers are trying to price a bottle of apple juice, they’d look at convenience stores that sell apple juice. The sellers will find three or four comparison prices, add them and divide by that number to find what’s supposed to be the Logan price.

This is easy to cheat on, especially for a chain. To ensure the highest price possible at Logan, a store can simply look at the highest-priced locations in Boston or Cambridge. A Harvard Square or Faneuil Hall, for instance. And they can control how much is charged at those stores, too, so prices can easily rise again to the limits of what the market can bear. A Logan convenience store can similarly look at the most expensive Back Bay convenience stores. Massport can reject locations chosen by their concessions, but Teeven didn’t know of that happening.

Airport food costs are still outrageous, and it’s still a captive market, but at least there’s a rationale for what’s charged. At least buyers can be sure there’s someone else in the world paying roughly the same amount for the same product. Unlike in pharmaceuticals, where even other wealthy industrial nations such as Canada get to bargain as a unit, making their prices as much as 70 percent cheaper than in the United States.

Price-gouging is price-gouging, whether the product is airport milk or cholesterol medication, and industry justifications for high prices in a captive market, which airport vendors have, as well as drug makers, do little to stem resentment on the part of captives who can’t afford to eat when hungry or medicate themselves when ill.

If they’re going to justify prices here, drug makers better get on with raising prices elsewhere in the world. Otherwise they’ll soon find the inmates are running their asylum, and a “captive market” will take on a whole new meaning.

Monday, August 02, 2004


Boston officials were vague on whether the end of the Democratic National Convention meant the end of random searches on our mass transit system. It looks as though it does.

The police presence caused a lot of general fear for civil rights and specific anxiety over getting to work on time, but the real problem was much different: The system was laughably porous, and therefore frustratingly pointless. And it was those things far more than expected.

From what the officials said, there would be police at T stations conducting random searches. No one had to agree to a search, but those who didn’t submit would have to leave, denied boarding and travel. This was silly because terrorists could easily have played the odds and tried to get some dangerous material on the system, gambling that a random search would be as likely to miss them as find them. If police did approach them, all the terrorists had to do is refuse to be searched, leave and try again to board elsewhere or later.

For instance, a terrorist with a backpack full of Thermos bottles labeled “Sarin nerve gas” could have tried to get on at Porter Square, been approached by a cop, left without being searched and walked 10 minutes to the Davis Square station to try again. True, clever police would coordinate and send each other descriptions of everyone who refused to be search. (An obvious but objectionable tactic, since the suspects would have been far more likely to be members of the ACLU than Al Qaeda.) But cleverness was not an issue, as there was no one with which to coordinate.

Many T stops had no active security presence at all for the week, so there were any number of points at which terrorists could have entered without a challenge. Only major stations were covered, a half-assed measure that requires a kind of dilettante terrorist -- willing to die for Jihad, but, say, too lazy to walk a few minutes to avoid surveillance and capture.


This kind of complaint drives some people nuts. Here I am, right, opposing a police presence on the T and suggesting that it wasn’t done very well!

I’m hip. When Christopher Hitchens wrote in a June edition of Slate about Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” he blasted the filmmaker for seeming to demand more of what he opposed, and therefore being a hypocrite, lashing out at anything for the sake of lashing out.

It’s among many things in the movie Hitchens squalls about, little of the squalling being fair or reasoned. Hitchens has worked hard at perfecting tantrums that make the object of the tantrums look like the cause, but it’s a wasted effort. He comes out of it red-faced and snot-nosed, breathing heavily from the floor upon which he’s thrown himself, while the object looks on with gentle pity and shocked amusement, because a tantrum is no one’s fault but the child’s, and everyone knows it.

Here’s Hitchens, at length, on what he perceives as Moore trying to have it all ways:

From being accused of overlooking too many warnings -- not exactly an original point -- the administration is now lavishly taunted for issuing too many. (Would there not have been “fear” if the harbingers of 9/11 had been taken seriously?) We are shown some American civilians who have had absurd encounters with idiotic “security” staff. (Have you ever met anyone who can’t tell such a story?) Then we are immediately shown underfunded police departments that don’t have the means or the manpower to do any stop-and-search: a power suddenly demanded by Moore on their behalf that we know by definition would at least lead to some ridiculous interrogations. Finally, Moore complains that there isn’t enough intrusion and confiscation at airports and says that it is appalling that every air traveler is not forcibly relieved of all matches and lighters. (Cue mood music for sinister influence of Big Tobacco.) So -- he wants even more pocket-rummaging by airport officials? Uh, no, not exactly. But by this stage, who’s counting? Moore is having it three ways and asserting everything and nothing. Again -- simply not serious.

This is disingenuous. At the most base level, if Moore didn’t pay attention to what was going on in the world, rather than what he wishes were going on, what would he make movies about? People such as Hitchens feel it’s unfair for people to point out flaws if they don’t support whatever’s flawed in the first place, but it’s hard to think of a metaphor in which that makes sense.

Say you’re a vegetarian who orders a hummus sandwich and gets pastrami. Is it then ridiculous to point out that instead of lettuce, the sandwich uses rat droppings? Or say you’re a vegetarian who feels he’s been unfairly arrested. When lunch comes, is it ridiculous to be unhappy that it’s a hunk of meat and therefore inedible?

There are plenty of things that are undesirable that, once in place, might as well be pursued sensibly. If they’re not, obviously, they’ll make no sense. In the context of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the Democratic National Convention, if there are going to be infringements on our civil rights, those infringements should be for some purpose (and ideally the stated purpose). Sacrificing and spending is bad enough, but sacrificing and spending for no reason is ridiculous.

If no sense can be found in them, or if they can’t be made to work, well ... what’s the point?

Let’s leave that a rhetorical question.